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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Panel Vision - Justice Riders

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ne of the more surprising trends of the 2010s is that the Western is back from extinction.  This is mainly due to Tarantino re-introducing us to the versatility of the genre in 2012 with Django Unchained but it’s spread well beyond that.  There were more Westerns than superheroes movies in 2015 and now we’re gearing up for a double dose of the old west with the twin remakes of Magnificent Seven and West World.  This is hardly the first time Westerns have impacted the cultural landscape but the revival and the genre versatility it’s brought with it have certainly cast a new light on an old style. 

Even though this current crop of films are set in the Old West and feature cowboys and gun fights they all come with additional genre elements like Bone Tomahawk’s position as a horror movie, Hateful Eight is an Agatha Christie mystery, Ridiculous 6 was a comedy (hey I’m just talking about Westerns, not GOOD Westerns.)  All this genre crossover reminded me of my favorite Western comic book courtesy of DC Comics- the late ‘90s oddity that was The Justice Riders. 

The Justice Riders, written by Chuck Dixon and illustrated by the incredible trio of JH Williams III, Mick Gray, and Lee Loughridge, was one of the last entries in DC’s Elseworlds imprint.  Elseworlds was an imprint applied to various graphic novels in the ‘90s that were primarily an excuse for writers to do whatever they wanted with pre-existing characters. 

There are a lot like Justice Riders IE re-imagining established characters for a different era.  For instance, both Superman and Batman enjoyed Elseworlds that re-imagined them as soldiers fighting for Lincoln during the Civil War.  It was a cornucopia of creativity and quality, despite a few lame outliers, to the point that several Elseworlds comics have now been folded into DC’s Multiverse, including this one. 

The story is a re-imagining of the Justice League into various Old West cowboy archetypes drawn together on a mission of righteousness and retribution.  The leader of our team is Sheriff Diana Prince, the wonder woman of the little frontier town of Paradise.  However, when the railroad robber baron Maxwell Lord raises the town of Paradise to the ground Diana sets off on a mission to recruit other heroes of the West like herself to seek out justice. 

Answering her call is Katar Johnson, a native American hawk shaman, John Jones, mysterious Manhunter, Kid Flash, fastest gun in the west, and Booster Gold and the Beetle- a maverick gambler and his radical inventor compadre.  Together, they ride against Maxwell Lord and his army of clockwork heroes to become legends of the Wild West. 

Justice Riders is more or less as simplistic as you can get, which is definitely for the best.  The Western and the Superhero story really go hand-in-hand in that they’re genres where the plot doesn’t need to be overburdened with complexity for the narrative to shine, hence why both styles produce so many stand out character types.  Actually, combining the Superhero and the Western makes a ton of historical and thematic sense right from the brainstorming phase. 

The Western was the dominant genre of adventure fiction in the years leading up to the advent of the superhero and a lot of the structural designs of both genres overlap as a result.  I mean, the Lone Ranger and Superman were both created in the same year; there’s always been a connection between these genres. 

In the case of Justice Riders the simple story allows the characters to be the core focus, though the comic never muddies that with excessive explanations or mechanics.  It’s just accepted from the outset that this world has metahumans, aliens, and magic and it’s best not to question it, which is definitely a strength. 

The book doesn’t need to be consumed with explaining how Kid Flash is super fast or how Hawkman’s wings function, they just do and move on.  The real focus is on the character’s personalities and how they relate to each other, like Kid Flash’s recent loss of his partner Marshall Barry Allen or the friendship between Booster and Beetle as the two humans among the godly beings. 

Speaking of Booster and Beetle, you may have noticed the line-up of heroes for Justice Rider is a bit eclectic.  The core unifying element is that none of the characters are presented to be THAT powerful and their various costumes are easiest to adapt to the time period.  For instance, Diana Prince is clearly stronger than an ordinary person but she can’t fly and has no magic lasso in this adaptation, just her six-shooters and a will for justice. 

Aside from that, a good number of the characters involved are drawn from the Justice League International era of DC Comics like Booster, Beetle, and Lord along with cameos from Guy Gardner, now a Pinkerton rather than a Green Lantern, and Oberon, Diana’s deputy in Paradise. 

Going back to the costume design, the artwork overall is just stunning.  Everyone is firing on all cylinders for this book.  Williams III is still one of the most unique and dynamic artists in modern comics, taking an approach to panel construction and border design that no one has yet managed to match in sheer imagination. 

He’s complemented perfectly by Gray and Loughridge, who manage to find the perfect balance between the washed out color dynamics of a modern Western and the vibrancy of superhero comics.  The whole book is like that, blending together the core iconography of the Western with the larger than life imagery and genre of the superhero world, with the gunfights especially working well in the sequential art design and panel construction. 

In case you can't tell, Colonel Kent is meant to be Clark Kent- Superman

Justice Riders is the epitome of why Elseworlds was such a great concept and, in its own way, is the best argument one could make for someone trying this concept in live action.  The story combines the scale and freedom from history of a superhero story coupled with the grit and grandeur of a Western, combining the elements to create something honestly better than both. 

The Western faded as a genre because people started to appreciate the true, ugly history of the American west- the superhero elements of this story circumvents that completely.  This isn’t the real west, it’s one full up with aliens, magic, and super-humans- it’s a get out of jail free card to accept that history can work as an aesthetic without the need to be slavishly wedded to the reality.  It’s the best of both worlds and definitely worth reading. 

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